Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers.
A Victorian Hallowe'en
On Hallowe'en 2019, my partner and I made our way across the Shropshire countryside to Acton Scott. If you have watched Victorian Farm, starring Ruth Goodman, you will recognise the name; this is the place it was filmed. Not far from the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones, Acton Scott really does feel a million miles from the hustle of everyday life. In the dark, it's a perfectly spooky setting!
We were placed in the Souls group. As the rain pattered through the trees above our heads, the night began with traditional Victorian songs performed by a local all-male group. After a quick bite on a soul cake and a swig of mulled cider, we set off into the dark ...
What is a soul cake?
Traditionally made for Hallow's Eve, All Saint's Day, and All Soul's Day, these little cakes are typically made with spices, raisins, and currants. A Christian tradition which dates from the Medieval period and continued into the 20th century (in some places it still goes on), these cakes were given to 'soulers' (usually poor people) who would go from door to door singing and saying prayers for the souls of the givers and their friends.
Our first stop was in the old farm buildings. Here, we were told of the ghosts that haunt that very spot.
On a November afternoon roughly 5 years ago, a worker was bringing in the horses from the fields. Dusk was falling, and after putting the horses in their stables, the worker was about to leave when he saw a woman in white. The woman walked past him, stopped outside the locked door to the dairy to look back at him, then disappeared into the dairy. I imagine he made a swift dash to his car!
The woman is thought to be the wife of the man who lived in the bailiff's cottage (next door to the dairy) in the mid-Victorian period. It is very likely she would have often worked in the dairy herself. She and her husband lived in the cottage with 16 children, and sadly, only 4 years after moving in, the woman died from consumption.
The bailiff's cottage also contains a piano. One time in the winter, a volunteer was in the cottage when she heard music. Venturing towards the piano room, she opened the door to find the place empty and the piano lid shut. Singing has also been heard coming from empty rooms. It is said the woman in white used to love to sing and play the piano.
A more gruesome tale comes from the grey lady. Perhaps she was a farmer's wife or a simple labourer, we are not sure, but in Victorian times she was helping with the job of threshing the grain. In previous centuries, this job would have been done by hand with a flail, but with the rise of the industrial revolution, machinery began to take over.
Threshing machines were giant things, and people would have to stand near the top of the machine and use a pitchfork to feed the grain inside. Legend has it that the grey lady was doing this job when she lost her footing. She fell inside the machine. It must have been a horrific end for her. Her ghost has since been spotted around the farm walking into the threshing machine where she then vanishes.
Following these ghostly tales, there was a quick stop off at the caravan of curiosities – an old gypsy caravan filled with things lost and forgotten, and with magic and spells. After this, whilst sitting beside two old hearses, we were told more local Shropshire tales of those who met their end in peculiar circumstances.
One boy, wishing to know who he might marry, followed his friend's order to walk 3 times around the church at midnight so his future-bride might appear to him. He did so, but got one crucial thing wrong; he walked anti-clockwise around the church! After waiting for a woman to appear for some time, he eventually gave up and set off for home. On the road, he met a funeral procession. Under the moonlight, he watched the horses and mourners go by. They made no sound at all as they disappeared into the darkness. Exhausted and disappointed, the boy made his way home and fell into bed. He never got out of it again, dying days later from a mysterious illness.
On the table in the above picture, you will see many old folklore and magic objects from Shropshire and the UK. Some of these included ribbons all of different lengths and material which, after asking a question, would give you an answer about your future. There is also a pot which could be filled with things such as nail clippings, urine, iron nails, etc, to defend against witches or those who had tried to do you harm. This pot could be buried under your threshold or else thrown into the fire. The idea was that as the items inside the pot rusted and decayed, so too would the person who had cursed you. There have been many instances of such pots being found decades if not centuries later when houses have been renovated.
It truly was a fascinating evening. The storytellers were wonderful, and it was great to know more about my local folklore. You can see more pictures from the evening and find out more about the folklore by visiting this Facebook page.
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